The last time the Timbers met the LA Galaxy, the Timbers were riding a high of two consecutive home wins to christen their newly renovated stadium, Jeld Wen Field. The feel-good factor was palpable throughout the city, and although a win on the road at the Home Depot Center was always a big ask, a three-nil pasting was hardly what the club expected after seemingly getting their season back on track after a slow start to the campaign. Portland was only brought down to earth temporarily, however, as they then reeled off three more wins at home, and the Timbers Army were absolutely giddy.
Fast forward a few months, however, as the two sides prepare for tonight’s return leg in Portland (7:30 PM, ESPN2), and the Galaxy come to town riding a 14 match unbeaten streak to maintain their perch atop the league standings, while the Timbers enter the match trying to forget their recent run of form which has seen them win only one match since May and drop to the league’s cellar.
Portland can perhaps be thankful that LA’s four-nil trouncing of Cascadia rival Vancouver at the weekend kept them from sitting closer to the bottom of the table, but the boys in green will be well aware that their playoff destiny lies in their own hands (er, feet?), and results for other teams are much less important than what they can accomplish on the pitch themselves. Squaring off against such a clinical opponent, Portland will need to quickly expel their habit of late match collapses if they hope to earn a point much less all three in tonight’s contest.
Before that last encounter in SoCal, Timberlandia’s match preview included eerie mentions of ‘now seemingly commonplace defensive lapses’ and ‘continued pressure for 90 minutes is what the Timbers lacked late on… and led to the concession of unnecessary late goals’. The tonic for this malady was prescribed then as well – ‘if Spencer can get his boys to remedy this and maintain their focus til the final whistle’ – but it seems manager John Spencer has yet to find the right dosage to get the desired effect.
A positive for Portland entering this match is that the players will be motivated to show their home support that they are a more capable side than the one that was walked over by a rampant LA in April, as the recent formation and personnel changes can offer a much improved and more balanced squad to provide a different challenge to the one the Galaxy so easily dispatched last time out. In that match, Portland was still hinging their hopes on the now out of form and out of favor Kenny Cooper, who has dropped down the pecking order at forward.
In his place is the maturing and ever more confident Darlington Nagbe, who has seen his play benefit from a more central attacking role, which has been made possible by the emergence of Sal Zizzo as a more than serviceable option on the wing in Nagbe’s stead. Jorge Perlaza, the other striker LA has seen before, may not make the starting eleven as Eddie Johnson has made a case for inclusion with his excellent goal against Toronto, and more importantly, his ability to match the team’s rhythm by staying onside.
Another change is the full integration of Diego Chara into the team, as his debut for Portland was in the second half of that April defeat, he now is a central cog in the team’s defense and distribution. Not flashy, the diminutive Colombian does the little things for the team that oft go unnoticed, yet his breaking up of the opposition’s passing lanes and his ability to hold and pass the ball are highly instrumental in maintaining possession, a key component of the team’s success. His chemistry with captain Jack Jewsbury has grown as the season has progressed, and the constancy of their pairing in midfield continues to pay dividends in determining match tempo.
LA has seen it’s share of changes, with Donovan Ricketts’ injury bringing former Timber Josh Saunders between the pipes, and despite lengthy absences for Landon Donovan and David Beckham for various injuries and national team commitments, the Galaxy have maintained their consistency, a testament to their strength in depth and manager Bruce Arena’s knack for grinding out results.
What sets the Galaxy apart from their MLS counterparts, Portland and otherwise, is that they have established a methodical system that controls the flow of the match and wears teams down, evidenced by their capacity to win games late on despite notoriously slow starts. Add to that one of the league’s most high caliber rosters, including league scoring leader Donovan and Beckham second in the assist chart, and you have a lethal combination on your doorstep.
After the draw against Toronto, Spencer was critical that his midfielders didn’t slow down the game after holding a lead, a confusing statement from the manager given his culpability for bringing on two strikers at the expense of defensive midfield options at his disposal. Rather than point fingers for not taking their foot off the gas, Spencer should encourage his team to go for the killer goal that finishes teams off.
Too often this season Portland has lacked the decisiveness required late in matches, and this young and growing team has appeared adrift as they desperately try to hang on for a result. For the Timbers to win, they need to stay true to their high intensity attacking style and feed off the Timbers Army to catapult them to success over their highly favored visitors. Employing their pace and power will be vital in their conquest of the Galaxy, here’s to the Timbers showing the confidence to play their game against the league’s superstars.